Hurricane Sandy

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Hurricane Sandy hit the New York coast on October 29th, 2012 as a Category 2 hurricane with 85 mile an hour winds and an a 14 foot storm surge.  The devastation to the city and its boroughs was immense.  Sandy was the second costliest storm in U.S. history, created the largest power outage on record and left 233 people dead in eight countries[i].  Americans are becoming all to familiar with these “super storms” and catastrophic events.  The weather, which used to be broadcast locally in evening newscasts, is now a regular part of the national news.  Almost every day the destruction and devastation from these weather-related events captures our national attention – hurricanes along the coasts, tornados in the mid-west, wildfires in the drought-stricken west, and floods everywhere.

One of the most enduring images of Hurricane Sandy comes from a news interview taken the day after the storm.  Anne Curry of NBC News accompanied Phyllis Puglia as she returned to her home on Staten Island for the first time.  We see Phyllis’ shocked disbelief as she see that her home is completely devastated.  In the next scene she walks along a board on the beach a mile from her home where she finds some of the items from her house.  The beach is now a pile of rubble with boards from houses, clothing, appliances, furniture, papers – everything that would be found in the modern American household, mixed up with reeds from the beach, sand, and other debris.  Phyllis stoops down and picks something up from this pile of rubbish.  It’s her mother’s wedding picture.  The 12 X 15 photograph is soiled, dirty and warped from the water.  “See my mother?” She says. She immediately expresses concern for her father.  “There has to be more with my father.”   Then like a child who is alone and desolate having just lost her parents, she cries out pitifully, “I want to go home.  But there’s no home.  I can’t go home.”

We are heartbroken for her.  Phyllis’ cry of despair touched many lives.  Who cannot empathize with the anguish of wanting to go home, but having lost that home forever?  Later she tells Anne Curry, “My mother was my best friend.” She said it was so important to find her picture because in all the devastation, to find something  meaningful she felt that she had gotten something back.

Like many others, I was deeply moved by Phyllis’ circumstance.  I thought, “If only I could have told her how to save her memories, she wouldn’t have lost them all.”  As a trained archivist who has worked in university libraries and museums I could have shown her how to preserve her memories so that when the hurricane hit, she wouldn’t have lost it all.  While a relatively small portion of the American public is losing everything to these catastrophic weather events, the rest of us sit by watching in horror and wonder if we will be next.  There are many reasons for getting your memories in order, losing everything in a super storm is the most compelling and dramatic.

To watch the newsclip of Phyllas Puglia go to http://www.nbcnews.com/video/rock-center/49753888#49753888

[i] Wikipedia 1/5/16 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Sandy

On Being an Archivist

I wanted to be a librarian for many years before becoming one.  I was inspired by an article in the Providence Public LibraryProvidence Sunday Magazine about the Providence Public Library.  I thought, “How cool would it be to walk into that building everyday to go to work?”  When I finally took the leap and went to grad school, I decided to become an archivist instead.  I love working with older documents.  One of the things I loved when I was new in this field and doing my internships is that when I stumbled upon a cool original document while processing collections, I would immediately tell my supervisors, people who have been working in the field for twenty years or more.

I thought they would be ho-hum about seeing another cool document by a famous person.  But, No, they weren’t.

They got just as charged up about it as I did.  They all said the same thing, “Let me see.” When I did an Beyond god the fatherinternship at the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, I had the honor of doing an initial survey on the papers of Mary Daly.  In her collection I found letters from Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, and Angela Davis, among others.  When I told my supervisor, Maida, she got excited and said, “Let me see.”  I thought she would have seen it all by then, having worked in Smith’s archive for over twenty years, but she was impressed and curious and had to see.  The women’s whose documents I found might not mean much to you, but I grew up listening to them, reading their words, and learning from them.  They’re like rock stars in my world.

Recently while working in another archive where I supervised a couple of student interns, one of Jacques Derridamy students found a signed letter by Jacques Derrida, the postmodern philosopher.  You would have thought he had won the lottery he was so excited.  He had read a number of Derrida’s books and considered him a hero.  A few days later when I was surveying another collection, I stumbled upon handwritten thank-you notes Fear of Flyingfrom Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. That’s what I love about working in the archives.  We get to see and feel the documents of people we love and admire, and more importantly, preserve them so a researcher in the future can experience the same thrill  of discovery.